Ballistics is the first novel from the award-winning short story writer DW Wilson. Told in the first- person by two of its main protagonists, Alan West and Archer Cole, it describes the journey they take through a fire-threatened rural Canada in search of West’s father, a man he’s never known.
One of the technical feats Wilson accomplishes is fusing the details from several journeys into a coherent narrative: the death-throes of Alan’s current relationship, the story of Archer’s early years in the Kootenay valley and his friendship with Alan’s grandfather Cecil, the intertwined stories of Archer’s adolescent daughter Linnea and Cecil’s son Jack and the appearance of the threatening American Crib in several characters’ lives.
The valley where Alan was raised by Cecil and where (much earlier) Archer had settled is captured extremely well. One of Wilson’s particular strengths is evoking the curious atmosphere of places in a state of flux whether it’s an abandoned fur-station decaying by the water or an old play area yielding to nature where the slides reek of “piss and dope”. Wilson’s eye for detail and the unassuming precision of his prose are evident in phrases such as the “cerulean flicker” of a TV and “the mineral scent of rain,” the latter one of the many sections that contemplate the dual questions of travel and home, a place “where we go to anticipate change”. However, I did have difficulty with his constant use of nouns as verbs in phrases such as “caramel froth yeasting on the surface” from the book’s opening paragraph or, in later sections, clothes described as being “footballed” under someone’s arm or hair “tendrilling from the temple”. In addition to the ungainliness of many of these phrases, they were also disappointing because they tended to hint at imaginative precision rather than evoke it; their sense is movement but nothing actually moves: the end result being that the reader’s perception is blunted instead of being transformed.
The two first-person narratives, Archer’s in the past and Alan’s in the present, create a stereoscopic view of events that show how the shadows of old grievances and desires continue to darken the present. Cecil West, an important figure in both narratives, is a case in point: in Archer’s story he is pragmatic and generous, a man in an uneasy relationship with his partner Nora and his son Jack; in Alan’s world he’s the man who raised him and who now, at the end of his life, is questioning the actions of his younger self and seeking some form of reconciliation.
A first-person narrative can only take us so far however: we only see through the lens of another’s words, hear what the narrator chooses to remember. Our understanding of other characters’ motives is necessarily constrained by what the narrator decides to tell. In Ballistics this secondary view has the effect of rendering some characters, particularly the female ones, one-dimensional; the end result being the tumultuous scenes in which they’re involved tend to elicit confusion, rather than compassion, because we don’t have enough information to understand why the characters act, or fail to react, in the way they do.
Archer is the dark heart of this novel. In interviews Wilson has spoken of “sad man fiction” and the character of Archer is, if not the prototype of this type of character, then some sort of apogee. West’s narrative shows the aged man: wheelchair-bound with spinal cancer but still driven enough to accompany Alan on a physically demanding journey. His own words present a man at a curious distance to the world and those in it: on the one hand constantly sizing up the fighting capabilities of the men he encounters and able to recall, despite the flood of adrenaline, the details of the many fights he’s entered into; on the other, the wordless tenderness for the natural world he expresses in his drawing. The affair he embarks upon with Nora, the partner of the man who’s helped him the most, the cruelty with which he taunts Jack and the violent confrontation he forces towards the end of the book – all hint at a man protecting some aspect of himself he’s afraid to understand or even name. This sense of protective distance is also evident in his (and others’) conversations: there are several instances where a response to some form of personal disclosure is immediately stymied by the phrase “Fuck you.”
As a first novel Ballistics is not without fault: in addition to the one-dimensional female characters there is too much uninteresting dialogue in the last third of the book. That said, there is a great deal that is poignant, precise and affecting and, at his best, Wilson is adept at conjuring a sense of loss from a host of small, barely noticeable details. In the semi-rural world whose sights and sounds he captures in all their mundane strangeness, he brings together a cast of characters of considerable depth. In the case of Archer we have a morally ambiguous man who draws our attention and holds it; not least because he serves as a warning of how the gravitational pull of the past can, if unchecked, fatally warp and wound the present.